The ‘roaring game’ of curling

“It’s not just a rock. It’s forty-two pounds of polished granite, with a beveled underbelly and a handle a human being can hold….in and of itself it looks like it has no practical purpose, but it’s a repository of possibility. And, when it’s handled just right, it exacts a kind of poetry – as close to poetry as I ever want to get.” – Paul Gross

Two days from today, and just a month away from the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea, Nashua will host its version of an Olympian celebration when it officially opens its new state-of-the-art curling rink at the Nashua Country Club – the only dedicated curling rink in New Hampshire and one of just two in northern New England.

First featured in the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, curling became a demonstration sport in 1932 at Lake Placid, and an official Olympic sport at Nagano in 1998.

The ancient sport of curling is as captivating to its players as it is baffling to its audience.

Paintings by 16th century Pieter Bruegel (1530-1569) portray an activity like curling – stones being thrown across frozen ponds. What the passive sport of casting stones across the ice lacks in high energy and flashiness, more than makes up for itself in its subtle interplay of art and science – from the ice on which it is played to the strategy a player uses to cast the stone.

But then what would you expect from a sport that may have had its official start as a contest between two monks? The first written evidence appeared in Latin in 1540 when a notary in Paisley, Scotland, recorded an upcoming contest between Paisley Abbey monk John Sclater and Gavin Hamilton, “a representative of the Abbot.”

One of the world’s oldest team sports, curling earned the nickname the “Roaring Game” referring to the rumbling sound of the 42-pound granite stones as they travelled across the ice. Curling came to North America in 1759 when General Wolf’s soldiers curled on the frozen St. Lawrence River after the capture of Quebec. At the turn of the 18th century, an influx of Scottish stone cutters and masons brought curling to the United States – the first documented American curling club formed at Orchard Lake, Michigan in 1832. Boston formed a club around 1839.

Curling came to Nashua Country Club in 1928, twelve years after the founding of the club. For the first few years, curlers played on the frozen pond that is now the 13th hole of the golf course. A few years later, the first indoor rink was made by flooding the floor of an adjacent farm building – resulting in three separate sheets of ice – a less than ideal situation as “Iceman” David Deane of Nashua, discovered over the last nineteen years. The ice-making process changes dramatically with the new rink due to advances in technology and the fact that the new rink is now one sheet of ice with four Olympic-size curling sheets.

The science of making curling ice begins with what lies beneath the ice – a 30” thick “layered “sandwich” of materials including: sand; rigid insulation; 1” piping; stone dust; 6mm poly vapor sheet; stone dust; 4″ rigid high-density Styrofoam; 6 x 6 mesh; “chairs” spacing 1” tubing 3′ apart; steel rebar tied into the piping; stone dust; poly plastic; 6″ of concrete, ¾” ice.

It takes patience, finesse and art to apply that sheet of ice. Deane floods the rink, then applies 300 gallons of white paint to that first layer of ice. He mists and seals it, and uses lasers and yarn to lay out the lines for the four houses, back, tee and center lines.. Deane then “pebbles” the ice (sprays it with water) – pebbling and scraping the ice as many as 10-12 times. Deane explained: “There is an art to layering the ice. On a monolithic slab – to keep it level as you are flooding – you have to keep the surface temperature up as you move across the ice, so it does not freeze right out of the hose.”

There is a science and art to casting the stone as well. One Nashua curler who, as a youth, was a 1973 National Champion, sees the game in terms of strategy and team spirit. He breaks the delivery of the stone into components – the forward press; draw back; forward press; leg down drive; bottom out; arm extension; handle turn. The difficulty – and the art – is that the drawback is almost as important as the follow-through. And no matter how perfectly a curler executes the first six steps, the shot depends totally on the last gesture – the turn of the stone.

Meanwhile, two teammates of the person casting the stone begin sweeping the ice in front of the stone, pacing themselves so the stone hopefully lands in the house. Sweeping can enhance the distance traveled by the stone by as much as ten feet. Sweeping early straightens the path of the stone. Sweeping late when the stone is curling enhances the curl.

Curling also involves the art of teamwork as success depends on each team member’s execution. The “lead” throws first and sets up the game. The “two” needs to be able to throw “take-outs” to oust an opponent’s stone. The “Vice,” the “game-changer” must have control of a variety of shots. The “Skip” or captain of the team throws last stones.

Curlers and golfers alike teamed up in creative fundraising to sponsor the $4.4 million project that includes the curling rink and a new golf shop. Total donations amounted to $232,000, with another $100,000 from an anonymous source, and $25,000 from Merrimack Valley Curling Club, a “paper” club that rents NCC ice on Sunday evenings.

All sixty-four new curling stones were donated by NCC members. There are only two places in the world where the granite is consistent enough to make curling stones that will not crack upon impact – the Ailsa Craig Island off the coast of Scotland and the Treffor Mountains in Wales. Kay’s of Scotland has the exclusive right to quarry the Ailsa Craig and this is where the NCC stones were quarried.

“Ice – it’s a really complex thing – and so is curling,” said Deane. “There is a science, a strategy to it. The ice is always changing even as the day progresses – the pebble starts to wear down. The average person carries 200 BTU’s out on the ice, so with 48 people, the air changes and has an effect on the ice, on the surface of the stones and the skip has to read all that. I’ll throw some rocks but when the day is done, I love watching it.”

If you watch Olympic curling at the PyeongChang Games next month, the camera will hover on the hog line, the players, and the house. But one of the most important aspects of the game of curling will be missed by the camera – the behind-the-scenes tradition that expresses the history and spirit of this ancient sport that is based on camaraderie and kindness. Every curling match begins with all eight players greeting each other with a hand-shake or a hug and the greeting “Good Curling!” Every match – no matter who wins – ends with the same greetings.

This “spirit of curling” is contagious. Many NCC members play both sports, but as one member noted, “the curlers seem much nicer – and happier – than the golfers!”

NOTE: The new curling rink opens to members this Saturday. Anyone interested in a curling membership can contact Nashua Country Club.

D. Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, author, historian and Nashua resident of more than 40 years. Contact Whitney at quincysquill@nashuatelegraph.com.